roasting marshmellows in phd hell

What to do When Your PhD Adviser Ignores You

with 17 comments

I’ve been thinking about what to do when your fucking phd adviser ignores you, because I am livin the life right now.  I’m not like one of those rappers who goes on about his tough life in the hood but has no bullet exit wounds or teardrop tattoos decorating his body-temple.

As a result of my contemplations, I’ve come up with a few different categories of phd adviser neglect:

1. Outright hostile treatment, usually with the intention of trying to get you to quit the program.  I know a few people this has happened to.  In one really horrific case, the prof in question had accepted a position at another university but was contractually obligated to stay at hir current spot until all hir phd students had graduated.  So ze set about trying to get the remaining few students to quit by maligning their reputations.  Ze claimed (despite good grades and previously filing paperwork saying they were making satisfactory progress and ‘on track’ for a phd) that suddenly the students were not capable of completing phd level coursework and tried to have them kicked out of the school.  The person I was friendly with was the only one to stick it out, and ze had to take the fight all the way to the head of the university.

2. Busy Backson Syndrome (as coined by Winnie the Pooh and Benjamin Hoff)- My first adviser suffered from this.  These people are Too Damn Busy flying around the world, giving lectures anywhere other than their home university, being on TV, and frolicking through the lavender fields of Provence and buying age-inappropriate accessories with Johnny Depp.  Clearly teaching/advising is not as exciting as all those other shiny things, but then how about don’t be a fucking professor then?

3. Benign neglect.  Now that really is a misnomer because, as the advisee, there is nothing too fucking benign about the situation, but you can be somewhat reassured by the fact that your adviser is not planning an elaborate Manchurian candidate type situation which ends with you being assassinated in a ballroom full of reporters.  Whenever they see one of your emails in their inbox, they probably think, ‘oh yes, I must get back to University of Lies soon’ and then they forget about you and your hopes and dreams as soon as they hit the X on outlook and resume watching videos of cats playing or whatever the fuck it is they really do with their time.

I have been stalking my adviser lately (in a completely legal way, I assure you), and after several MONTHS of attempted contact, recently had a very brief conversation with hir.

Eau de Desperation: A Curious and Unpleasant Unisex Fragrance by University of Lies, now available at discount retailers near you.

Me: Hi Dr @#$%^, it’s great to finally talk to you.

Adviser: Yes, absolutely.  I should tell you that I only have a few moments to speak, I’m quite busy here with some Very Important Documents.

Me: Oh, um ok.  I was wondering if you got a chance to look at the stuff I sent you awhile back.

A: No, I haven’t had time.  I’m very busy at the moment with those Very Important Documents I just mentioned, and I won’t get to look at it for another several weeks, at least.

Me: Oh, um ok. I’m really still stuck with what I was working on, do you have any advice for me?

A: Well… I recently read an article containing a Marxist commentary on Japanese Rock gardens.  It might not be helpful, but you might find it stimulates some ideas.

Me: ………

A: Good luck, let’s speak again at some point!

End scene.

What the fuck.  I assure you that the actual suggestion my adviser made was just as ridiculous as the fictitious example that I generated in the interest of preserving my anonymity because this whole phd process has made me even more of a paranoid wreck than I was before.

Since I am a trained ‘researcher’ (HA), I took my complaint to Dr Google.  And though it’s always reassuring to know you’re not alone, I didn’t find any helpful magical advice that would tell me how to make my adviser care about me and my work  (though some article in the Chronicle told me that I should have anticipated these problems before starting my phd. gee thanks, you fucking genius bastards!)   I guess that means it’s up to me to put that shit on the internet.  So here goes.

Since I am at the very end of this magical mystery tour, my advice to someone in a similar position (with less than 6 months remaining on their phd prison sentence) would be to put their head down and finish.

Again, like my last piece of advice, this sounds really fucking obvious.  But bear with me for a mo, mmkay?

Nobody drowns in academic bullshittery on my watch, old sport!

Nobody drowns in academic bullshittery on my watch, old sport!

A while back, when I was in the trenches and up to my eyeballs in metaphorical muck, faced with the task of making actual fucking Chapters out of my 87,000 scraps of paper and ideas, I had an idea about how these last few months would go.  Even though I imagined a high pressure race to the finish, I’d have the relief of knowing that my thesis was basically written and it was just a matter of making it the best it could be before sending it off.  I’d write my introduction and conclusion, and go over each chapter again, make what I hoped would be final changes, and send em off for approval.   Then, I’d get some feedback on my opening and summative material, and maybe a few last minute suggestions.  I’d make those changes, send the damn thing off to the printer, and submit.  Then, immediately after, I’d have a Gatsby like party where I would employ Leonardo DiCaprio to lifeguard and Cary Mulligan to throw beautifully constructed silk shirts from a balcony as a sumptuous visual feast for my 1000 well-heeled closest friends.

And now it looks like I was very wrong about that, along with everything else.

I can’t ‘wait’ for my adviser to answer my questions or give me helpful advice because it is not going to happen.  Ze either doesn’t care or doesn’t have any good ideas.  And at this point, it doesn’t matter which, because they both have the same effect.  I can’t afford to waste 2 days immersing myself in the extremely boring world of marxist approaches to Japanese rock gardens because it doesn’t fucking matter.  It was a wild goose chase red herring bullshit idea that ze threw at me to get me off hir back for awhile.

see also: all the times I was told to pursue something on a ‘deeper level’, and then after going away and staring at it for days, coming up with nothing, and getting depressed about how I’m not smart enough to think on a higher fucking plane of consciousness, I’d ask for advice, because I really couldn’t see anything more.  The answer each time was, ‘hm, maybe there isn’t anything else.’

What a mindfuck.

I used to think my adviser was so fucking smart, the way ze would throw out book titles and suggestions and tell me to scamper off and Think About It, because my last adviser was a Bisy Backson.  But now I realize that this kind of behavior is just a different kind of poisonous insect.

And if you are just starting off in your phd, well, fuck.  I really feel for you.  My advice then would be:

1. Get some therapy.  Seriously.  Your university probably offers free sessions for grad students, which some other blogger I’m too lazy to search for previously indicated that this should be very telling.  Take advantage of the help and use the sessions to blow off steam and formulate some kind of plan either to get the shit out of academia, transfer, or find better advisement.

2. Don’t take it lying down.  Fight for your right to have some kind of guidance.  I realize there are all kinds of ego and political issues at stake here which make the situation very complicated, but remind yourself that you are already in a pretty bad spot and you probably can’t feel much worse than you do right now.  Talk to whoever is in charge of advisement in your school and bring documentation to fucking quantify for their academic minds just exactly how you have been shafted.  Insist that something be done about it.

3. And if you’re smarter than I am, ask any honest non slimy members of your cohort if their advisers actually do their job.  Hopefully you will find someone in your subject area with a shred of work ethic remaining, and they will take you on.  This does involve a lot of luck.  It also may involve a kindly granny type with nothing to do but go to various churches and light candles on your behalf.

If your school refuses to help you or you can’t find a suitable replacement on your own, well, they may have made the decision a bit easier for you.  But the bottom line is, you don’t deserve to be ignored and miserable for 3-6 years of your fucking life.  If they clearly don’t value you, your time, and your awesome mind, there is probably a different department or industry that will.  And you owe it to yourself to find that place.

In the meantime, I will commence with GatsbyEndGame 2013: The Reckoning.

Written by universityoflies

July 11, 2013 at 17:35

17 Responses

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  1. There should be a special section of the DSM just for academic advisers. I had a #1 and a #3 in my graduate career before I cut and ran. My undergraduate adviser was a #2.


    July 11, 2013 at 19:14

    • good call! The DSM isn’t thick enough!

      I feel like I should mail you a prize for having to deal with a 1,2, and 3. Too much for anyone to take. Glad you made it out alive!


      July 11, 2013 at 19:42

  2. Ouch..but good description of all three types. I know someone who’s supervisor was a class #3…he refused to read/mark his PhD thesis…and this supervisor had refused to read it, let alone acknowledge it even arrived in his office. So, in the end since this friend needed his thesis read since he couldn’t afford the fees much longer he got a friend of his to just sit in his supervisor’s office until the thesis was marked!

    I keep on hearing so much about these views that I’ve come to the conclusion that some people want to be profs really since they see it as a lifestyle choice, not a career or a vocation.


    July 14, 2013 at 16:41

    • A lifestyle choice!! Amen to that! Of course, it’s probably pretty freaking luxurious since they never prepare for lectures or read their advisee’s material.. leaves lots of extra time to lay by the pool drinking tropical beverages while cabana boys fan you with palm leaves!


      July 19, 2013 at 14:54

  3. Hello – long-time lurker here…

    In my experience, there’s another one which is a by-product of benign neglect. I call this the “Blowing Hot and Cold” type. It manifests as well-meaning but intensely irritating micro-management and appears to signal an actual loss of the advisor’s confidence in your ability to produce anything of worth. This type of behaviour A) doesn’t help, B) wastes your time and C) comes along just at the point when you’re finally sick of trying to get them to listen to you attempt to elicit feedback that would actually be useful and you’ve decided, “Fuck this, I’m just going to be my own advisor from here on out”.


    July 15, 2013 at 09:32

    • that sounds absolutely awful, acaddemic, and it sounds like you write from experience. it’s crazy how many ways there are to fuck someone in academia, ain’t it?

      thanks for your comment and hope you are free and clear..


      July 19, 2013 at 14:50

      • Not quite free and clear yet. I wrote my first draft in a year while doing loads of teaching under the pressure of an external deadline (you will submit ‘on time’ so the institution can look good to the funding body, basically). Got to the end of it totally burnt out, then had a moment of clarity that the draft was, in fact, completely shitty, and basically collapsed. I thought about quitting but took a step back instead. Negotiated the extension I was entitled (no thanks to my advisor) and am now feeling a lot happier and healthier. I’m planning on submitting in 9 months or less and taking no prisoners along the way.

        My advisor means well, but is labouring under the misapprehension that she’s an awesome teacher and that this automatically makes her a awesome person who can do no wrong and that if I don’t understand her shitty feedback it can’t be anything to do with her. I’ve belatedly realised she’s super-vague, kind of lazy when it comes to her students and that she has no idea of basic techniques for giving useful feedback or any interest in learning any. I can’t be bothered to try and educate her any more – I don’t have the time. It’s kind of irritating how long it’s taken me a long time to get to that realisation but hey. Anyway, enough of my waffling – thanks for the blog, it cheers me up to realise I’m not the only one dealing with academic bullshit!


        July 19, 2013 at 16:41

  4. Thanks for this! I’m at the beginning of my PhD with an absentee adviser, and it helps a lot just to hear someone else say that this is fucked up! I think profs can get away with this because students will almost always assume it’s their own fault they’re not making progress no matter the circumstances. I’m trying to push that thinking away and arm-twist them into helping me.

    Letty Fox

    August 29, 2013 at 23:14

    • I sincerely wish you the best of luck, Letty. Some people end up just doing it all on their own. I honestly did not have the capabilities to do that, as I had no idea what the hell I was doing (which is fair enough and I think a lot of us fall into this category). If your adviser/school is really resistant, do what you have to to either switch advisers or schools. Don’t struggle alone- fight the good fight! Wishing you a lot of luck.


      September 14, 2013 at 15:18

  5. same happened here…I think in the end, you have to be creative and try your best. The advisers? They can go to hell!


    September 1, 2013 at 12:21

    • thanks for the comment, mumtazrazi! sucks that this is such a common story though..


      September 14, 2013 at 15:16

  6. Me: Hi Dr @#$%^, it’s great to finally meet up with you.
    Adviser: I see. What’s up? Where do we stand?
    Me: Oh, um ok. I was wondering if you got a chance to look at the stuff I sent you awhile back. And the emails that I sent to you 2 months ago.
    A: Yes, I saw you emailed, but I didn’t read them. As to your copious notes, no, I haven’t had time. I’m very busy at the moment with some Very Important Documents that I always have on my desk, but never seem to move. So tell me, where do we stand?
    Phone rings. Telephone conversation that lasts about 10 minutes.
    A: Ah, where were we?
    Me: Uh, yeah. Where we stand…. Well, I’ve paid a shitload of money to have my statistics work done for me, because the statistics department here at Shithole University told me that my work was crap. I’ve tried to figure out what these statistics mean, but I am unsure. Do you have any advice for me? I simply don’t know what to do anymore.
    A: Well… Let’s see. Hmmm… **looks over 3 pages of statistics results** I cannot really comment, as I haven’t read what you have already. But it looks like you’re doing a great job!
    Me: Really? Wow! **chuckle and feeling good**
    A: Well, I guess that’s all we have time for now. Great seeing you. You can do it! Onwards and upwards!
    I leave the Advisor’s office feeling like I accomplished something!!! ~~~ Until I get about 3 steps out the (now) closed door and realize I have gotten absolutely nowhere. Hang my head down and feel like crying.
    End scene.


    September 25, 2013 at 13:27

    • I’m so sorry, Desperado.
      I have been where you are and it really fucking sucks. I wish I had some advice but these fuckers are so freaking slippery. Have you tried emailing your adviser in advance of the meeting with a proposed agenda? ( I realize that doesn’t work if they don’t read/answer your emails…)


      September 30, 2013 at 21:00

      • Yes, that’s a good approach. I used to use this tactic with the particularly badly organized members of my committee. It was really useful for the prof who usually lost your work in various places (a) trunk of a rented car either locally or abroad, (b) due to insufficient postage on envelope in foreign country or…(c) lost it under the carpet in his office. Don’t ask about these excuses. I didn’t make them up…he did. Trust me, he was well known even by undergrads for losing their papers.


        September 30, 2013 at 23:20

  7. Great post in a great blog! I’ve got one of these. “Benign” neglect. I am funded for three years, will probably take five. Not going to quit. Have to be positive. Have to build my own support network.

    Public shame or public praise might be a good incentive, and a warning to potential students. Universities won’t take this elephant in the room seriously, so they should at least be required to publish PhD outcome/time taken statistics for individual supervisors.


    November 24, 2013 at 11:05

  8. With me, I feel its a case of him ignoring me or my contribution. I work in a team of SEVEN grad students on a single overall project and I feel every new/interesting sub-project is allotted to just one or two of them. I work on the subprojects allotted to me but they are all supporting tasks, nothing worth presenting or publishing. I have tried to talk to my adviser about this and told him that my work is very less as compared to the others. He said that they would do something about it but nothing has been done.
    Its bad when my co-students are favored and they get all the interesting work.


    August 27, 2015 at 02:32

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